Newspapers Are Born To Exaggerate

It seems these things come in waves. This time, it is the Times Online overreaching the consequences of some recent neuroscience finding, presenting it in a splashy way, and misrepresenting pretty much whatever they need to in order to fit the message in the simple headline. “We are born to believe in God“, says the paper this time, and lists a number of researchers (at least one of whom has complained about his depiction) whose work is shoehorned into the “hardwired belief” message. (I have not read all of them, but certainly Dawkins, Hood, and Persinger, and while I can see the germ of what the present authors saw, I must say they have read them differently than I did.)

There is, in my view, a considerably simpler explanation that still fits. (I am reminded, with tremendous feelings of inadequacy, of Douglas Adams’ description of humans as fundamentally tool-makers, inventing a god who, like them, is a creator. I am taking a different track, viewing us as fundamentally social creatures, even before we are tool-makers.) We are social creatures. As such, it has behooved us to use certain social strategies, which have apparently served us well. To wit, we are easily influenced by others. We are, unsurprisingly, influenced by the social power of the majority (see Asch), and of course by the positional power of authorities (see Milgram). This is not bad nor good, this is simply who and what we are. That there are areas of the brain associated with obeying (perhaps even worshipping or feeling awe in the presence of) others is no surprise whatsoever. I wonder if those same areas might light up, for some people, in the presence of an adored movie star, singer, or politician. (Would this be evidence that Sophia Loren is God? A much better thought than the idea of scanning my in-laws’ brains while they listen to O’Reilly.) Religion would be, in this model, simply a successful hijacking of this genetic predisposition toward social living. No pre-wiring for belief in god (and did you notice the capital letter? Are we pre-wired for a particular religion?), but rather a predisposition toward particular behaviors that facilitate social living.

In other words…

The Times Online has just opined
It seems as if we are designed,
When growing up, to seek and find
Some evidence for God.
(Of course, the authors whom they quote,
Like Hood and Dawkins, don’t promote
This view at all, so one may note
The Times is acting odd.)

Such explanations soon run thin–
It seems to me that what’s built in
For social humans and their kin
And each religious pilgrim
Is deference to authority,
A bow to the majority
(Just look to a sorority,
Or shocking Stanley Milgram).

Communal lifestyle surely shapes
Our genes, and so, as social apes
Such strategies have served in scrapes,
Thus following’s selected.
The Times is also well-controlled
By genes that fit our social mold–
Reporting only what they’re told
By someone well-respected!


  1. says

    Always pleased to read what you have to say :) Just one nit to pick, though; because of poor controls, a disregard for the starting attitudes of the subjects, and experimenter tinkering with the rules of the experiment, the Milgram experiment didn't really show much that was meaningful.Sorry for being such a pedant :P

  2. says

    Just curious as to your source(s), MTI–I have (long ago, admittedly) read Milgram's book, as well as the Journal of Social Issues (if memory serves) special issue on Milgram, and quite a bit more, and I did not get that impression. (Now, Zimbardo's prison experiment, there we have methodological issues!) Certainly, the Obedience studies have gained Mythic status, and claims of their influence are, I agree wholeheartedly, exaggerated. But we have the advantage of hindsight; Milgram (and other experts) was expecting far, far less than what was found. (And I don't think we can understate the importance of the study on experimental ethical standards!)

  3. says

    I'm sure that those areas of my brain lit up both times I met Richard Dawkins! I've had a serious case of hero worship since about 1986.When I read the article, I thought that it actually might make some believers think about why they believe. I'm probably being far too optimistic.

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